New Zealand: Is It Safe For Cycle Tourists?

Share the road“Is it safe to bike tour in New Zealand?”

We’ve been asked that question a lot lately, suggesting that recent high-profile collisions between cycle tourists and motorists, including the death of a young German woman in January 2010, are threatening to ruin New Zealand’s reputation as one of the world’s best places for bike touring.

Concerns about cycling safety won’t be anything new to local New Zealanders, especially those active in running safer cycling campaigns, not only to save lives but to protect the $320 million dollars in economic benefits that cycle touring brings to New Zealand every year.

“We are very concerned at the worsening state of many roads in NZ for cyclists,” Bevan Woodward, a spokesman for the Cycling Advocates Network, wrote in an email to TravellingTwo.

He pointed out, however, that cycling is still a relatively safe activity in New Zealand. You’re 3 times as likely to be injured if you drive around New Zealand in a car as on a bicycle, according to government statistics on CAN’s website.

To find out more about what bike touring is currently like in New Zealand, we asked for comments from several cyclists. Most of them are New Zealand citizens as well as avid bikers. We hope their thoughts will help you better understand the risks to be aware of if you’re going to New Zealand and also help you get the most out of New Zealand by avoiding the most dangerous situations.

The general points brought up by the people we talked to can be summed up as:

  • Avoid the busiest roads and especially State Highway 1 – Staying away from highways makes sense in any country but especially in New Zealand, where the roads are often outdated and overcrowded. You can’t expect to always find a shoulder and because everyone on the highway is trying to get somewhere fast, they’re not patient either.
  • There goes Andrew

  • Time your journeys – If you have to ride on a busy road, do it early in the morning when traffic is light.
  • Stick to the South Island – There are 4 million people in New Zealand and 3 million of them live in the North Island. The South Island offers vastly quieter roads.
  • Take advantage of dirt roads and trails – New Zealand has a wealth of wonderful cycling on unpaved roads so don’t come here with a racing bike. Instead, put fat tires on your bike and bring everything you need to camp out and cook for yourself.

You can get more information on touring New Zealand in our New Zealand Resources section, including suggestions for routes in New Zealand that we particularly enjoyed.

Now for the real experts: cyclists who either live in New Zealand or have been there very recently give their opinions. Scroll through their replies, or jump ahead to answers from Jonathan & Ruth Jarman, cycling advocates, David who runs the Cycle Tour NZ website and Chris & Liz, bike tourists who recently toured New Zealand.

Jonathan & Ruth Jarman, Cycling Advocates and Keen Bike Tourists

Cycling advocates Jonathan & Ruth, who live on the North Island of New Zealand and do regular bike tours, say the answer to the question “is NZ still safe for cyclists?” is a big “yes” with a little “but”.

Classic autumn cycling

“Ruth and I started cycle touring 30 years ago. Since then we have noticed a lot of changes in New Zealand. Thirty years ago touring cyclists were a novelty on many roads and it was common for people to wave. There was less traffic and it was cycling heaven. Tea was made with tea leaves and it was almost impossible to buy a decent coffee. Those were the days!

Since then the number of motor vehicles in New Zealand have increased significantly but the roads have not changed. Many of our main roads are narrow and poorly designed for cyclists. In recent years Ruth and I have changed the focus of our cycle touring in New Zealand to something we call heartland touring.”

Jonathan defines heartland touring as cycling that goes off the beaten track, onto New Zealand’s many cross-country roads like the unsealed Molesworth Road and Rainbow Road in the South Island, or the Forgotten Highway, Gentle Annie and the Rimutaka Incline in the North Island.

Read the full answer from Jonathan & Ruth Jarman

David, who runs the helpful Cycle Tour NZ bike touring website

Flying around a curve“Unfortunately the death of touring cyclists is not an uncommon event now in New Zealand and there appears to be a general reluctance by the Government and New Zealand culture generally to accept we have a problem, primarily with the driving habits of our truck drivers,” David says.

He believes the North Island is the most dangerous and encourages cyclists to plan their trips accordingly.

“I would still tour New Zealand by bike but would head for the South Island and miss most of the North altogether.”

David also encourages cycle tourists who are worried about New Zealand as a bike touring destination write the press and government tourism office in New Zealand to express their concerns.

Read the full answer from David

Chris & Liz, bike tourists who recently toured New Zealand

Chris and Liz, a cycling couple on their way back to England by bike from New Zealand, have some upbeat news for anyone considering a bike tour in New Zealand.

The trails are where the great cycling is at in NZ

“Our experience of cycling in both the north and south islands was very positive and compared to the UK and Australia, there is a lot less traffic on the roads in general – less people, less cars etc. We toured there from September to November 2009, so not in the main tourist season.”

They note that there often aren’t many roads to choose from and that trucks make up much of the traffic on the road, but say they were treated well by most drivers.

“We had no problem with the majority of trucks, they gave us space and on the whole seemed to drive with consideration. Some of the trucks knew they created a lot of draft and would warn us with a few beeps before overtaking. Car drivers are generally considerate and give you space, however there is a tendency to overtake for the sake of overtaking. So if a car is going 80km and another car comes up behind it, chances are they will overtake even if they don’t want to go any faster.”

“On the whole our over-arching feeling is that you have the road to yourself quite a lot, especially in the south island and it can be quiet and peaceful. We felt very safe and comfortable on the roads in NZ, with only the occasional car hating driver, that you get in any country.”

Read the full answer from Chris & Liz